Fetterman’s Act Is Nothing New

Sen. John Fetterman speaks with a reporter before President Joe Biden takes the stage during a campaign event at Montgomery County Community College January 5, 2024 in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Sen. John Fetterman understands well the power of symbolism. His Carhartt hoodies signal that he’s a man of the people. As lieutenant governor, he flouted state law to display LGBT pride and pro-marijuana flags on the balcony outside his office in the Pennsylvania capitol. Most recently, though, he’s garnered attention for waving Israeli flags while getting into verbal sparring matches with pro-Palestinian demonstrators.

His support for Israel, along with some tough talk on the crisis at the border, has elicited a sense of betrayal and anger from left-wing media. Figures on the right, though, responded approvingly to his “unlikely transformation,” as Fox News put it. Incidents like this cost the senator nothing concrete, but reinforce the hardening notion that he is a special kind of politician and a different kind of Democrat. 

But there’s ample reason to doubt this narrative. Fetterman can reject being labeled a progressive, but an ideology is not something he can put on and take off like a sweatshirt.

When he launched his campaign, the left-wing website Now This accurately described Fetterman as a “rising progressive star.” Philadelphia’s NBC News affiliate billed him as “one of the most progressive politicians in the state.” Indeed, Fetterman’s two policy focuses as lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania were a marijuana legalization “listening tour” and activism for a radical approach to criminal justice. He had authorized clemency for more prisoners than every previous lieutenant governor over 25 years combined, including convicted murderers, and repeatedly voiced support for reducing the state’s prison population by one-third.

Since running for the U.S. Senate, though, Fetterman has recast reality. “I’m just a Democrat,” he insisted to NBC News’ Lester Holt, who had asked him about his support for progressive policies (Fetterman had supported ending the filibuster, universal health care, a wealth tax, ending cash bail, and unlimited abortion up till birth). “Six years ago, this was considered progressive. Now there isn’t a single Democrat in this race or any race that I’m aware of that’s running on anything different.” To Fetterman, that the Democratic Party was adopting more progressive positions didn’t mean the party was becoming more progressive; it meant that the definition of the word “progressive” had changed. 

That was a false, postmodern approach to truth, but also a convenient one. Republicans have reduced the Democrats’ voter registration lead from about 1 million to 400,000 as the state has gone from being part of the “blue wall” to a more purple swing state. Fetterman’s deflection—along with some support for Israel and tough talk on immigration, as we’re seeing today—thus allowed him to be championed as a normal, plain-spoken, Rust Belt guy just trying to represent the working man.

But not only is Fetterman’s latest rejection of the progressive label not new to him; it’s not new to Pennsylvania politics either. In fact, Fetterman’s approach adheres closely to the strategy adopted by a small group of Pennsylvania Democrats who’ve handed Republicans repeated losses in major, statewide elections. The strategy: Be inoffensive to moderate Pennsylvanians and mollify Republicans. 

During his first campaign in 2007, the calm, sweater-wearing Sen. Bob Casey portrayed himself as conservative Democrat in the mold of his father, Robert, who served as the state’s governor from 1987 to 1995: working class, pro-life, and pro-gun. Because of this every-man moderateness, his endorsement of then-candidate Barack Obama gave the progressive Illinois man “credibility” in the Keystone State, an Obama campaign adviser noted. Casey has since cruised to two reelections over Republicans, including a notable 13 percent win over former Trump-backer Rep. Lou Barletta. 

In 2014 came Gov. Tom Wolf. He campaigned then as a businessman who’d stand against the burgeoning anti-fracking movement and happily negotiate deals with Republicans. At his inaugural address, which was protested by environmentalists, he made the anodyne declaration that, “our government should not do everything, but it cannot do nothing, either.” In its place, he promised Pennsylvanians merely a “government that works.” But local media was nevertheless entranced by his calm intelligence, his 2006 Jeep, and for once paying a Harrisburg NPR host a dollar for a water bottle because he wouldn’t accept gifts as a public official. He easily won reelection in 2018, beating Trump-endorsed Republican Scott Wagner by 17 percent. He may have driven a Jeep, but he was the Volvo of politicians and Pennsylvanians approved.

Gov. Josh Shapiro kicked off his 2022 campaign for governor with an ad that could make conservatives swoon. It showed him having Shabbat dinner with his family because, “family and faith ground me,” he said in narration. He subsequently conducted what the Associated Press called a “notably drama-free campaign” that promised bipartisan cooperation to “get sh-t done,” touted his law enforcement background, promised popular K-12 education vouchers, and effectively painted his Trump-acolyte Republican rival Doug Mastriano as “dangerous.” In comparison, a group of Pennsylvania Trump-Biden voters in a focus group run by Axios described Shaprio as “harmless,” “quiet,” “calm,” “reasonable,” and a “regular person.” He won by 15 percent

Each of these men is, like Fetterman, more progressive than they signal to the state’s voters. Casey never lived up to his pro-life label, and even embraced progressive activism in the Senate after Trump took office. Wolf was rated the nation’s most liberal governor, bickered with Republicans at every turn, and he administered a series of antagonistic COVID-19 shutdowns. Shapiro abandoned his promise to back vouchers months after taking office, and bent the knee to the teachers’ unions—America’s most influential progressive institutions. 

But none of them would have ever campaigned on being progressive, nor would they be likely to adopt the label while in office. Instead, they perfected the strategy of signaling inoffensive normalcy to the plurality of Pennsylvania voters who consider themselves moderate.

This is a lesson Pennsylvania Republicans haven’t learned. During the Trump era, they’ve nominated candidates for U.S. senator, governor, and president who are standard bearers of a political identity shared by a minority of the state’s voters. That fealty to MAGA has virtually guaranteed electoral losses. The last time a Republican won an election in this state for any of these offices was in 2016, when a decidedly offensive-to-moderates Donald Trump beat an even more widely disliked New Yorker in Hillary Clinton by a mere 40,000-vote margin. The more traditional Sen. Pat Toomey won the same year by a margin more than two-and-a-half times larger.

As Fetterman told Time in 2022, voters choose a candidate based on a “visceral” feeling that “it’s someone they believe is a good person or gonna be honest at the end of the day.” Like Casey’s sweaters, Wolf’s Jeep, Shapiro’s getting-things-done mantra, Fetterman’s Israeli flags and border rhetoric are signals to moderate Pennsylvanians that he’s normal, like them. After all, most Pennsylvanians support Israel and recognize the crisis at the border. Contrary to claims that Fetterman has suddenly moderated, he is correct in his recent proclamation that he hasn’t “changed a lick.” He’s just emphasizing the parts of his identity that soothe the visceral feelings of the median voter. 

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